Auckland: Blown away by the big smoke

By Mark Story

Seeing our city through the eyes of The Visitors From Hawkes Bay. Mark Story writes.

Orca spotted on a Whale and Dolphin safari. Photo / Supplied
Orca spotted on a Whale and Dolphin safari. Photo / Supplied

At 1.45pm Auckland Airport is a comfortable 16C - two degrees higher than we'd left in Napier.

It is a welcome first taste of a four-day visit to the country's most populated metropolis, where we have been summoned to be The Visitors From Hawkes Bay.

We throw our bags in a taxi and are told we'll reach the city in half an hour via a route through Epsom's school-belt. The affluent suburb passes in repeating vignettes of well-tended villas, mature trees and volcanic rock fences. Auckland's wider landscape presents in various stages of pregnancy. Green volcanic cones push peacefully upward in every direction. Their presence adds an unexpected sanctuary ( even sanctity) to the uber-urban city.

On checking in at the Viaduct's Sofitel I spot former All Black Richard Kahui in the foyer, and entertainer Gary McCormick regaling a group at the hotel's swanky bar, Sabrage. Celeb-spotting is a habit we provincial folk can't shake. We follow McCormick's lead and order a quick glass of pinot gris before heading out through the Viaduct Harbour on foot.

The colloquialism "City of Sails" is a half-truth. Auckland's also the metropolis of motorboats; a marina where the provenance of each launch leaps from the stern - "Oklahoma", "London", "Sydney". It's a truly global hub. It's 3pm on Friday afternoon and bars named Snapdragon, Kermadec and Soul are already making noise.

We head to the Wynyard Quarter via the 100-metre two-piece Wynyard Bridge that links the North Wharf right through to Quay St. We watch it rise for boaties to pass - and fall flat again for pedestrians. Despite being a more industrial amenity - closer to the inner gears of the harbour and large fishing vessels - patrons enjoy the bars, restaurants and the quarter's vibrant fish market.

Starving, we duck into the market and share a grilled fillet of fresh snapper. From the banter at other tables, it feels like we are the only ones speaking English. That's the beauty of the harbour precinct. It's inclusive. Irish-themed pubs stand next to chic bars. Pinot gris doesn't preclude a cold Guinness. Whole poached flounder doesn't preclude a wrapped parcel of fish'n chips.

Next is the mystery precinct that is Britomart - a matrix of business, pleasure, shopping and art. Businesses thrive from refurbished historic buildings. Further up in Imperial Lane, one place stands out - a bar, aptly named Everybody's. Like Britomart itself, it is difficult to see where this labyrinthine establishment starts and finishes. It boasts an open air-atrium in the centre, exposed brickwork of yesteryear and the most enthusiastic bartending team I've ever had the pleasure of ordering a cocktail from. The place is optimally packed. No pressing bodies, but few spare tables. A beautifully layered joint well worth the visit.

The elegant but modestly priced District Dining is our next stop. Oronga Bay oysters and octopus are chased with raspberry sangria. Flat-out delicious...

On Saturday, and in perfect sunlight, two bikers shatter the tranquility of the hotel foyer by kick-starting high powered motorbikes. The guys from Bularangi Harley Davidson Motorbike are here to show us a tour of a very different Auckland. Sending throaty decibels up into the highrises, we swap the harbour for the bush and storm through the western suburbs and Waitakere Ranges before descending to the beautiful black sand of Piha Beach. A gloriously grunty way to see some of the best natural delights this town offers.

That night we happen upon the culinary highlight of the trip courtesy of Ponsonby's contemporary Thai joint, MooChowChow. The only aspect that surpasses the insanely tasty crispy roll of pork, slow cooked beef in lemongrass and curried fish with clams, was the stellar service. A jam-packed, fragrant little firebrand of a restaurant.

Still full the next morning, we board the Viaduct-based Dolphin and Whale Safari. The captain urges the 140-odd passengers to scan the briny for the tell-tale vapour that blows skyward on a whales' surfacing. We track to where gannets are feeding by dive-bombing the chop at over 100km/h. Pods of common dolphins effortlessly break the surface next to the boat, sparking squeals of excitement from passengers. At each surface, whales blow a V-shaped pattern of vapour, like mini eruptions, apt allusions to the once active volcanoes dotting the landscape.

Following four hours on the water we head to the newly opened Libertine restaurant near Victoria Park.

On the way, six inebriated men in their 20s yahoo from a bar like they've just robbed it. Interestingly they leave from inside the bar on bikes. Stranger yet, it is 6.30pm on Sunday night. Auckland has given itself much licence in hospitality; there's no curfew on fun-filled boozy shenanigans.

At Libertine I start on scallops and finish with baked chicken thighs atop a creamy mushroom risotto. The ceiling is of long exposed timber ribs - aptly after our successful day on the water, it feels like we are dining inside a whale's belly. This, together with a rotisserie menu of venison, goat, suckling pig and duck, makes for a meaty, carnal theme. It's me all over.

Auckland also boasts being a city of islands, so the next morning we board a ferry and head across to Waiheke Island to check out what they are on about.

After a quick 40-minute trip we drift into a bay of green bush with a handful of flashy houses on the ridgeline.

Our tour bus driver, a Waiheke native, welcomes us to his "little piece of paradise". I am immediately envious of him and the roughly 8000 other permanent residents. We cruise a few bays and take photos of the cute white sand beaches, many no bigger than the length of a bus. Wider than they are tall, pohutukawa trees stretch horizontal from cliff faces. I can only imagine what the shorelines look like when these endemic numbers bloom at Christmas.

The island has a robust public transport system. We are soon on another bus to Stonyridge Winery. I order their flagship Bordeaux-style Larose - at $15 a taste - and eye-fillet beef on a truffle mash.

I've over indulged in Auckland's delights for three straight days. The rich food wins me over, and does me over. My last night I sleep in fits, too full to slumber.

This is a city of indulgence. A city of so many influences, where hospitality folk are instilled with a passion to please.

But for all the sophistication there's a humility. The mystical green scars of volcanic upheaval keep the city's ego in check - inactive backdrops to a distinctly active Auckland.

Be in to win: An A-Class Auckland weekend

ATEED and Weekend Life have an A-Class Auckland weekend worth more than $1400 for one lucky couple to win. The package includes one night's accommodation at Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour, a Whale and Dolphin Safari with free lunch and a Bularangi two-hour chauffeured Harley Davidson tour to Piha Beach (you must be over 16 years to take this tour). Winner must be willing to be videoed talking about the experience in a 30-second clip on the Auckland Tourism Facebook page.

To enter, go to nzherald.co.nz/weekend, enter your details and the keywords A-Class Auckland Weekend by midnight Wed Oct 10.

A-Class hot deals

You can find more than 90 A-class deals for accommodation, activities and rental cars. Check these out for starters at aucklandnz.com:

* Enjoy three nights for the price of two at Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour

* Save 20 per cent on a Bularangi Harley Davidson Chauffeured Passenger Tour

* Enjoy a free lunch with Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari

* Save 15 per cent on a Wilderness Experience with Bush and Beach

* Buy one adult ticket and get the second one free with Auckland Adventure Jet

* Buy one The Big Foody Taste of Auckland half day tour and get the second tour half price

* Get 25 per cent off an Auckland Zoo behind-the-scenes experience for two

Mark Story, assistant editor of Hawkes Bay Today, was the guest of Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development (ATEED).

- NZ Herald

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